I am a Post-9/11 Military Caregiver and represent the state of Ohio as the 2020 Elizabeth Dole Fellow. I provide care for my husband Robert who served as a Military Police Officer in the Ohio National Guard. He returned home in 2004 from service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Soon after his return home, I realized that something was wrong. Less than three years later in 2007, was the first of three times that we almost lost him. Over the years, I struggled balancing a career while raising our son and daughter and navigating Robert’s care.
In early 2009, I made a bold decision. “I think I should consider obtaining my degree.” I proposed to Robert. “Do you think that is possible?” he replied. “Well, I am not sure but, I have to make a drastic change to improve our financial situation.” Financial strain along with a need to become financially stable long term was a big part of my decision to seek a degree. Sixty-two percent of Post-9/11 military caregivers report that caregiving has caused financial strain compared to the 30-40 percent of Pre-9/11 and civilian caregivers (RAND, 2014). Like myself, this is related to taking time off work, periods of under/unemployment, etc. Over the past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, caregivers have reported greater impacts to their employment and financial situations (RUSS, 2020). Additionally, recent reports show that the pandemic has placed an additional burden on unpaid caregiving families (Pulse Check, 2020).
As I look back on that initial conversation, I realize that it changed my families future outlook in a positive manner. It was the launching point that led to a decade long academic journey. Along the way, I dedicated my journey to understanding the invisible wounds that change my family’s landscape. In addition, through my educational experience, I discovered ways to apply my family’s narrative to evoke change for families like ours.
In 2019, I graduated with my Doctor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies with a Major in Educational Studies. My dissertation “Surviving the Invisible Wounds of War: As Told by the Unseen Heroes” allowed me the opportunity to share my story alongside five other Post-9/11 military caregivers. However, despite earning some scholarships, my academic journey did not come cheap. But I am grateful that early on in my journey, I was able to benefit from the Veteran Administration’s Educational Benefit for dependents such as myself, the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance. Otherwise known as, Chapter 35. But not all of the 5.5 million military caregivers (Pre- and Post-9/11) qualify for this benefit.
In most cases, their veteran needs to fall under the category of service-connected disability that is rated total and permanent (Veteran Administration). Some caregivers fall short of this rating, or perhaps they are a parent, brother, sister, or they are an unmarried partner. Hence, not all caregivers fit perfectly into the demographic necessary to take advantage of this program. Although this program does not pay directly for tuition, it does provide a monthly stipend for up to 36 -45 months depending on certain criteria. Recipients can utilize this benefit to best meet their needs.
As a Post-9/11 military-caregiver my experiences differ from my Pre-9/11 military caregivers and my civilian counterparts (RAND, 2014). However, in many ways are challenges are similar. As a Post-9/11 military caregiver, I am part of the 76 percent navigating the work force. Among all caregivers, some 16 percent that are in the workforce are unemployed (RAND, 2014). That is a shocking number, and it helps understand why these families are facing financial strain.
Like myself, many caregivers are forced to change professions to help aid in their adjustment to a military caregiver role. This is where academic and other training opportunities can be extremely beneficial in the transition to a caregiver role. According to the 2014 RAND study, Post-9/11 military caregivers in the workforce miss on average approximately one day of work more than non-caregivers (RAND, 2014). Expanding Chapter 35 benefits to those military caregivers can help lower these numbers. Therefore, through my experiences and advocacy on behalf of my fellow military caregivers, I call for an expansion of the VA’s Chapter 35 program to increase educational opportunities for all military caregivers. Making this change, will not only help provide financial relief to these families, but it was also strengthen communities and the workforce in which these talented caregivers live and work.
Pulse Check (2021) Blue Star Families Military and Veteran Families Financial Needs Retrieved May 25, 2021 https://bluestarfam.org/wpcontent/uploads/2021/05/BSF_PulseCheck_Report_Mar2021.pdf
(RAND) Ramchand, R., Tanielian, T., Fisher, M., Vaughan, C., Trail, T., Epley, C., . . . Ghosh Dastidar, B. (2014). Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers. RAND Corporation. Retrieved May 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/j.ctt6wq7xq
(RUSS) Blue Star Families and Association of Defense Communities (2020) Resilience Under Stress Study Retrieved May 24, 2021 https://bluestarfam.org/wpcontent/uploads/2020/11/RUSS-Report-11.4.20_FINAL.pdf
Veteran Administration Survivors’ and Dependents Assistance (Chapter 35) Retrieved May 23, 2021 https://www.benefits.v.gov/VOCREHAB/Dep_Edu_Assist_Chapter_35.asp